In His Words: Ramiah Whiteside, Coordinator, Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO) Milwaukee
I owned my first gun at age 11. It was a rite of passage. It was a .25 automatic Colt pistol that one of my older brothers helped me acquire. I could just put it in my pocket. Growing up in Hillside, a housing project on the North Side, guns meant control. They meant power. And on the streets, they gave you clout and respect.
But owning a gun didn’t make me invincible. I’ve been shot several times. The first time, I don’t even remember hearing a shot. There was just a pain in my leg, and when I looked down, my whole shoe was full of blood. The next time, I got hit in my other leg. Those guys were looking for me, and I could feel the bullets zip by. Another time, they were going for my head, and I only survived because I put my hand up and the bullet ricocheted. Nearly blew my hand off, though.
I started really going full speed after I lost my best friend at age 14. He was such a good kid. He wasn’t in a gang, and I never carried my gun when I was with him. I felt safe with him around. We would always swap clothes because I usually had something new, probably from stealing it. He didn’t do that kind of stuff. This particular day, he was wearing my coat and we stopped to get some juju candy. I went into the store and he went to the pay phone to call his mom. While I was inside, I heard shots. I immediately knew. I ran out and saw him on the ground struggling to breathe. He made these gurgling sounds like he was drowning in his own blood. He was trying to tell me something but couldn’t. Then something happened in his eyes and he just stopped. It was over.
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After that, I hated people. I hated the world. Whoever shot my best friend had been looking for me. Gun violence became an offensive weapon, a way to project what happened that day onto everybody else. I figured I’d go out swinging or shooting.
I was looking for any excuse to pull the trigger because I was so damn angry. It was like a whole Dirty Harry mentality: make my day. At 17, I got convicted for marijuana trafficking. And because I was on the run for an earlier gun possession charge, I was waived to the adult system. I did not quite a year. I wasn’t out for even six months when I was in a high-speed car chase that ended in a crash. There were four fatalities, including my younger cousin. I got a 25-year sentence. I was the one driving.
In prison, I really struggled with that trauma. I never got over losing my best friend. I never got over what I caused the night of that car accident. I had to do a lot of soul searching. Several years in, I was introduced to restorative justice programs and healing circles. They really helped me turn the corner. I connected with the idea that being hurt never justifies going out and hurting somebody else. It taught me that I don’t want to be that guy. Going down that road wasn’t easy, but it taught me that I can change.
I got out in September 2019. And now that I’m out, I want to pay it forward in the memory of my best friend. I want his life to mean something. That’s why I work with young guys. I’m out here telling them that it’s OK to hurt. I tell them we can hurt together. I’m still hurt. I still do get angry. But I have to live with that. I don’t want these guys going the route I did. Because at the end of the day, hurting someone else doesn’t fix what you’re running from. Take it from somebody who knows.